Does pop culture kill? Seldom, but it can disgust

The Argument

Steve Allen's posthumous rant against broadcasting's vulgarity and violence is misleadingly overstated.

April 15, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff

A recent caller to Howard Stern's morning radio show protested the presence of black actors on TV with a severe racial epithet four times in 20 seconds. The Grammy- winning rapper Eminem admiringly spins the tale of a young man who stabs his mother. A scene from the teen-age gross-out movie "American Pie" is said to have inspired a student at local prep school to videotape himself having sex with his (unaware) girlfriend and then screen the tape for his buddies.

Clearly, the entertainment industry can turn a buck while finding a way to violate just about every standard of taste. Such is the valedictory lament of the late Steve Allen, whose posthumous "Vulgarians at the Gate" (Prometheus Books, 400 pages, $26) catalogues an American popular culture largely defined by "trash TV and raunch radio." Yet Allen's nostalgic bromides, born of good intentions, lead his thesis -- and his book -- into a stance that proves difficult to defend.

Before there was Jay Leno, Johnny Carson or even Jack Paar, there was Allen, the genial, witty host of the first incarnation of NBC's "Tonight" show who remained a popular entertainer for decades. Yet, he became increasingly concerned with the coarsening of American culture. Though an Adlai Stevenson, 1950s-style liberal, Allen teamed up during the 1990s with conservatives at the Parents Television Council.

Why? "[T]here is a growing public appreciation of the link between our excessively violent and degrading entertainment," Allen asserts, "and the horrifying new crimes we see emerging among our young: schoolchildren gunning down teachers and fellow students en masse, killing sprees inspired by violent films, and teenagers murdering their babies only to return to dance at the prom."

He pines for the days when "the conservative country club set" controlled the networks and the film and recording studios adhered to an understood code of morals. "My purpose in writing this book, therefore, is to provide responsible adults with the ammunition they need to wage a successful cultural war for the attentive consciousness of America's children," Allen writes.

The way Allen provides ammunition for his cultural war, however, makes it tempting to write him off as a Dickensian windbag, dismiss his argument, and leave it at that. By the time of his death last fall at 78, Allen had come to sound prudish to the point of parody, writing of the urgent need to protect women's delicate sensibilities from the profane humor enjoyed by men.

More seriously, he contends the breakdown of the family is strongly connected to what youngsters absorb from TV, the movies and the radio, and it has produced "our present millions of prison inmates, rapists, drug addicts, burglars, muggers, sexual psychopaths ..."

Later, he writes, "Although we think of our mighty nation as the leader of the civilized world, not many of us are aware the United States leads the world in the percentage of children born outside of marriage."

There's a reason for that lack of awareness: Allen's wrong. A quick check with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov) reveals that one in three American newborns was born outside of marriage in 1998, the latest year for which statistics are available. By contrast, more than half of babies were born out of wedlock in Norway and Sweden. France, Denmark and the United Kingdom also had higher rates than the U.S.

Yet each of those countries also has significantly lower homicide rates than the U.S. And I haven't found much evidence supporting the notion that prom-bound teen-agers kill newborns because of anything they've seen on TV.

The line of thinking found in "Vulgarians" -- one advocated by William Bennett, Joseph Lieberman, C. Dolores Tucker, and others -- is deeply undermined by this fact: Violent crime has declined significantly in the past decade. Indeed, homicide rates have recently dropped to a 30-year low. Abortions and out-of-marriage births are also down. Yet Hollywood is unlikely to win much credit for these advances. Nor should it.

Allen would like to reduce the intentionally provocative, sometimes gruesome material found in modern film, music and television. Because of the effects on children, Allen says, there is a difference between regulating popular entertainment and censoring the written word.

The Federal Trade Commission struck a measured tone as it concluded that entertainment companies routinely marketed violent materials to youths. In its September 2000 report, available at www.ftc.gov, the agency said that voluntary ratings systems were overwhelmingly skirted by consumers and merchants.

Its report states: "Scholars and observers generally have agreed that exposure to violence in entertainment media alone does not cause a child to commit a violent act and that it is not the sole, or even necessarily the most important, factor, contributing to youth aggression, anti-social attitudes and violence."

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